Sunday, September 29, 2019: Serpents and Doves

Crest of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church: dove standing on a mountain, encircled by a serpent biting its tail, surmounted by a golden crown.

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. — Matthew 10:16

Welcome before prelude
Good morning and welcome to West Fork Unitarian Universalists. I’m Robert Helfer and I am blessed to serve this congregation as a lay leader. I’m glad to see all of you here today.
Thank you for joining us.

Let us use the prelude for centering. We are about to enter sacred time. We are about to make this time and this place sacred by our presence and intention.
Please silence your phones… and as you do so, I invite us also to turn down the volume on our fears; to remove our masks; and to loosen the armor around our hearts.

Let go of the expectations placed on you by others—and those they taught you to place on yourself.

Drop the guilt and the shame, not to shirk accountability, but in honest expectation of the possibility of forgiveness.

Let go of the thing you said the other day. Let go of the thing you dread next week. Be here, in this moment. Breathe, here.

Prelude: Heyr, himna smiður – Árstíðir

[Heyr, himna smiður (Hear, Smith of the Heavens) was written by the Icelandic chieftain and poet Kolbeinn Tumason, according to tradition, on his deathbed in 1208 AD. Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson set the poem to music in 1973. This recording features the Icelandic “Indie Rock” group Árstíðir. For more information, see]

Welcome: Come Sit By Our Fire
Jennifer Kitchen (

Come sit by our fire and let us share stories. Let me hear your tales of far off lands, wanderer, and I will tell you of my travels. Share your experience of the holy with me, worshipper, and I will tell you of that which I find divine. Come and stay, lover of leaving, for ours is no caravan of despair, but of hope. We would hear your stories of grief and sorrow as readily as those of joy and laughter, for there is a time and a place and a hearing for all the stories of this world. Stories are the breath and word of the spirit of life, that power that we name love. Come, for our fire is warm and we have seats for all. Come, again and yet again, come speak to me of what fills your heart, what engages your mind, what resides in your soul.

Come, let us worship together.

Song: Come, come, whoever you are
(Singing the Living Tradition, 188)

Chalice Lighting: Open to Unexpected Answers
Julianne Lepp (

We seek our place in the world
and the answers to our hearts’ deep questions.
As we seek, may our hearts be open to unexpected answers.
May the light of our chalice remind us that this is a community of warmth,
of wisdom,
and welcoming of multiple truths.

Principles of Unitarian Universalism
Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles, which we hold as strong values and moral guides:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Story: King Lindorm

This morning’s story revolves around a Lindorm. Some might be familiar with this beast, since it is mentioned in some fantasy games, especially those inspired by Nordic mythology. It’s also a figure used in English heraldry, and sometimes called a Wyvern. Basically, it’s a dragon, usually a dragon of a rather specific form: wingless, not fire-breathing, more like a serpent than the typical European dragon, and bipedal. Such beasts can be seen, woven and twisted, on some ancient Rune stones. In Scandinavian mythology, Níðhöggr, chief among the serpents or dragons who gnaw the roots of the world tree, Yggdrasill, is pictured as a Lindorm.

The story of King Lindorm comes from the collections of the Danish folklorist Svend Grundtvig. It was gathered in 1854 from Maren Mathisdatter in North Jutland. This version was translated by D.L. Ashliman in 1998.

Read the story at

Invitation to Offering

Say to thyself, ‘If there is any good thing that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now; let me not defer it nor neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.’

We will now receive an offering for the support of this religious community and its work in the world. You are invited to give generously and joyfully as you are willing and able.

Offeratory: Epitaph of Seikilos — Petros Tabouris Ensemble

[Epitaph of Seikilos is the oldest surviving complete musical composition, including musical notation, from anywhere in the world. The epitaph has been variously dated, but seems to be either from the 1st or the 2nd century AD. The song, the melody of which is recorded, alongside its lyrics, was found engraved on a tombstone from the Hellenistic town Tralles near present-day Aydın, Turkey, not far from Ephesus. (]

Offering and Response (Unison)

For the gifts which we have received—and the gifts which we, ourselves, are—may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.

Song: Faith of the Larger Liberty
(Singing the Living Tradition, 287)

Reading: Matthew 10:16

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.

Snakes and Doves
Robert Helfer, lay leader

What I really intend to talk about this morning is our third principle, “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” I think I’ll get there eventually, but first I’ve got some things to say about serpents and doves. And a little bit about magic. And maybe a bit about expectations and following instructions.

Each of us is on a pilgrimage, a journey of discovery, a quest, perhaps. It’s a personal journey, but at the same time it’s a shared experience. And each Sunday one of us stands up at the front of the room and shares a bit of their journey, some of the lessons they have learned along the way, attempting to describe it in a way that others can understand and that others might find useful. Sometimes the telling is beautiful, when the telling all flows together into something like a unified whole. Sometimes the telling is awkward, partial, confused. Sometimes the path we’ve followed has not led forward, but perhaps spiraled oddly without actually leading anywhere useful. I think it contributes to our spiritual growth to share all these pieces, even though the telling is by necessity always incomplete.

This past week my journey involved my discovery of a story.

A while back I happened across a discussion of the Lindorm tale I read a few minutes ago. I was intrigued. The discussion, of course, only summarized the tale, extracting those parts that were relevant to the writer’s arguments. So, I naturally decided to find the original tale.

That turned out to be a bit more complicated than I expected. I found many references, but the origin of the tale became more obscure as I searched. In the first places I looked it was identified as a story gathered by the Norwegian folktale collectors Asbjørnsen and Moe, but I quickly discovered that the story was not actually in any of their collections. It seems that a version had been inserted into an English language collection of Norwegian tales, most of which came from Asbjørnsen and Moe, thus implying that this story also came from them.

A bit more poking revealed that the story came instead from the Danish folklorist Svend Grundtvig’s publications.

I found the Danish original (isn’t the Internet wonderful?), but, alas, no English translation. But I had decided that it would make a great “story for all ages”, despite being a bit gory in places, and I wanted to use it, and it was clear that the original story was much superior to the “Norwegian” story I had found. I gritted my teeth and proceeded to poke at Google Translate and my various dictionaries, hoping to make a reasonable English version. And I actually did – well, sort of — but an hour or so after I had finished a rough first draft I discovered the fine English version by D. L. Ashliman that I read this morning. Hurrah!

If, by the way, you have any interest in European folklore, fairy tales, and mythology you should look at Professor Ashliman’s site (

But enough about my adventures of research. Let’s talk a bit about the story.

The queen, denied children by the writing on the marriage bed, longs for children anyway. The old woman in the woods provides her with a way to have one. And it works – a baby is born. But because the queen didn’t follow the instructions, the baby turns out to be a lindorm – a fearsome dragon. Well, it’s a baby fearsome dragon at first, and it vanishes under the bed. But when the king returns home, the lindorm demands to be recognized as the king’s lawful son. I like the matter-of-fact flow of the narrative, the way the king just goes along with this suggestion, with relatively little argument. “Okay, you’re my son.” And naturally, as the king’s son, the lindorm expects a bride. Unfortunately, we soon see the lindorm’s nature.

Having eaten two brides, the lindorm still demands another. I think about the parents here. They’re trying to provide for their child, no matter how beastly he is. One wonders, though, what the lindorm has been eating all this time. The story doesn’t tell us.

Anyway, the king forces his shepherd to give his daughter as the third bride, and while the young woman goes along with the deal she knows that it means her death. Enter an old woman in the woods again – the same old woman? — with a new set of magical instructions for the bride. Fortunately, unlike the queen, the bride follows the instructions to the letter, and we get a happy ending. The lindorm is transformed into a beautiful human prince.

Actually, this isn’t quite yet the “happily ever after” point, since the story continues through a new set of challenges, which reveal the kind and generous nature of the lindorm king and the resilience of his bride. But I left this part of the story out of the reading and we’re not going to worry about that today.

And here I think I’ve lost the point I was trying to make. Maybe. Can someone help me relate all this to the third principle – “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”?

Can we see “acceptance of one another” in how the lindorm was treated while still a lindorm? If so, is that a model for behavior in our religious community? This morning we sang “Come, come whoever you are”, and I believe that we meant it. But does our acceptance truly extend to literally everyone, or are there exceptions? Must the community accept a rapist? A murderer? A lindorm? Do we need to accept, as the lindorm’s parents did, everything a person says or does without regard for others?

Somehow I don’t think that’s what the third principle is supposed to mean. There must be limits of some kind, if only to protect other members of the community. And perhaps this is where the second part of the principle, “encouragement to spiritual growth” really comes into play.

I’d like to think that what the bride did amounted to “encouragement to spiritual growth”. Quite effective encouragement, in fact, since the lindorm’s entire being seems to have been transformed. But I wouldn’t recommend such techniques as a regular practice.

Now, my question is real, although not an issue in our current religious community. When Lisa and I were In a different congregation there was a member whose actions were suspect and possibly dangerous. I can’t say much more beyond that, since I was not directly involved. But I can say that the congregation did not reject him. Instead, while accepting the individual into the life of the congregation, it remained watchful, alert to any possible harm he might cause. And certain members of the congregation sought to guide him – “encouragement to spiritual growth” once again.

Of course, “encouragement to spiritual growth” is more general than helping someone overcome bad attitudes or practices. Those who told me I should stand in front of this room and talk was encouraging my spiritual growth, and those who describe spiritual practices are encouraging growth as well. And that brings us around to another serpent.

If you look on the wall to your left you’ll see the emblem of the Unitarian Church of Transylvania, which is part of Romania. In the center of the emblem a dove stands on a mountain, encircled by a serpent who is biting its own tail. And at the top of the emblem is a golden crown.

The emblem is intended to reflect the history of the Unitarian Church, and at the same time encourage development of character traits that have proven useful in the survival of this tiny minority church for over 400 years in an often hostile environment. The golden crown symbolizes John Sigismund, the only Unitarian king in history. John Sigismund ruled as King in Transylvania and part of Hungary from 1540 until 1570. It was under his rule that the Edict of Torda first declared religious tolerance in 1568. It also symbolizes the God or Goddess, as well as the goal of happiness that we can all obtain – to wear the crown of happiness.

The mountain of solid rock represents the ethical heights we must attain to fulfill our human potential; high because our goal is high, solid rock because we need a firm foundation. Perhaps we can help each other climb this mountain?

The serpent holds its tail in its mouth, forming a circle, the emblem of eternity, of regeneration, a reminder of Ouroboros.

The serpent and the dove reflect Jesus’s call to his apostles when he sent them out to preach. As part of his charge to the apostles, Jesus said, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

So, here’s a different serpent, not something to be feared, but a symbol of wisdom. And perhaps we can take something for ourselves from this symbolism. The world is often a dangerous place for those who don’t fit comfortably, and obviously, into the general community. The wisdom of serpents might help. At the same time, we don’t want to become ourselves like those who might harm us. Remaining harmless as doves is necessary, too. And perhaps this should be at least part of our goal in our encouragement of ourselves and our fellows to spiritual growth: to be wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.

I guess that’s really all I wanted to say for now; maybe I’ll try to continue these thoughts some time in the future.

Hymn: From All the Fret and Fever of the Day
(Singing the Living Tradition, 90)

Joys and Sorrows

If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;
or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.
For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.
These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Silent Meditation
Let us join our hearts and minds in silent meditation

Song: Go Now In Peace (3 times)
(Singing the Living Tradition, 413, modified)

Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go

Closing: As We Part Now One From Another
Eileen B Karpeles (

As we part now one from another, let these be our thoughts:
If that which is most holy lies within the human person, and if the greatest power in the world shines flickering and uncertain from each individual heart, then it is easy to see the value of human associations dedicated to nurturing that light: the couple, the family, the religious community.
For the power of good in any one of us must at times waver. But when a group together is dedicated to nurturing the power of good, it is rare for the light to grow dim in all individuals at the same moment.
So we borrow courage and wisdom from one another, to warm us and keep us until we’re together again.

The chalice flame is extinguished
Until once again ignited by the strength of our communion.
Go now in peace.